Oliver Twist

Charles John Huffam Dickens - Published 1837-1839

Charles John Huffham Dickens was born in Portsea, on England's southern coast, on February 7, 1812. The Dickens family moved several times during his youth, and the boy attended several schools, received instruction from his mother, and read voraciously. In 1824 Dickens's father, John, a middle-class naval pay clerk, was imprisoned for debt. Two weeks before this imprisonment, young Dickens was sent to work in a blacking warehouse pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He lived alone in rented lodgings while the rest of his family moved into prison with his father, a common practice at that time. His father was released after three months, but Dickens always remembered and hated the degradation of this period of his life.

In 1827 Dickens left school to work as an apprentice at a law firm. Although he disliked the law profession, he studied legal shorthand after work and became a very successful court and parliamentary reporter, eventually working for several newspapers. In 1836 Dickens published his first book, Sketches by Boz, a successful collection of vignettes previously published in a London newspaper. That same year he married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he would have ten children. Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers, appeared as a monthly serial from 1836 to 1837. It became an immensely popular best seller, making Dickens extremely famous at age 24.

Before his death in 1870 Dickens published fourteen major novels, several plays, numerous short stories, and many other books and articles. At times he was involved in writing as many as three novels simultaneously. A man of incredible energy and vitality, Dickens also acted, edited several periodicals, and worked with various charitable organizations. He twice toured America, giving readings from his works to packed houses. Dickens's novels—among them, David Copperfield, Bleak House (1852), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend (1865)—dominated the Victorian literary scene throughout his life, and he was arguably the most popular novelist ever to write in English. He left a final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished when he died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, in Rochester, England.


Dickens, like Shakespeare, is one of those rare writers who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. Many of Dickens's books were published, one part at a time, in popular magazines of the day. Whenever a new installment of a Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every book or magazine copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Dickens's novels are still amazingly popular among both casual readers and scholars. Academic articles and books on Dickens appear at a rate surpassed only by Shakespearean criticism.

Oliver Twist offers typical Dickensian pleasures. The author creates situations and incidents that are incredibly funny, delightfully touching, and feverishly exciting. His language amazes with its aptness and honesty. Dickens's realistic descriptions of loathsome places and evil characters brought criticism from his fellow Victorians, many of whom preferred to avoid any knowledge of their society's imperfections. Despite his unforgettable portraits of the underside of Victorian England, Dickens presents a world governed by morality, in which both honest and dishonest characters receive their due. In Oliver Twist and all of his works, Dickens deals realistically and profoundly with social and moral issues that remain relevant today.


Dickens sets Oliver Twist in early 19th-century England, a time when long-held ideas and beliefs came under serious scrutiny. Profound changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, religious uncertainty, scientific advancement, and political and social upheaval caused many Victorians to reexamine many aspects of their society and culture.

Industrialization drove many farmworkers into the cities, where poor labor conditions and inadequate housing condemned most of them to poverty. The unprecedented increase in urban population fostered new and overwhelming problems of sanitation, overcrowding, poverty, disease, and crime in the huge slums occupied by impoverished workers, the unemployed, and the unfortunate. London slums bred the sort of crime Dickens portrays in Oliver Twist.

The novel is set against the background of the New Poor Law of 1834, which established a system of workhouses for those who, because of poverty, sickness, mental disorder, or age, could not provide for themselves. Young Oliver Twist, an orphan, spends his first nine years in a 'baby farm,' a workhouse for children in which only the hardiest survive. When Oliver goes to London, he innocently falls in with a gang of youthful thieves and pickpockets headed by a vile criminal named Fagin. Dickens renders a powerful and generally realistic portrait of this criminal underworld, with all its sordidness and sin. He later contrasts the squalor and cruelty of the workhouse and the city slums with the peace and love Oliver finds in the country at the Maylies' home.


Dickens's story revolves around young Oliver Twist, an orphan brought up at a 'charitable' institution 'where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about on the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing.' After nine years Oliver graduates to a workhouse for young orphans. There his starving fellow sufferers elect him to ask for more food, in punishment for which Oliver is sold to an undertaker. Eventually Oliver runs away, making his painful way to London. Penniless and hungry, Oliver is befriended by a young thief, the Artful Dodger, who introduces him to Fagin and his gang, the evil Bill Sikes, and Sikes's lover, Nancy. Steadfastly resisting the criminals' attempts to corrupt him, Oliver eventually escapes, discovers his true parentage, and receives the respect he deserves. Dickens does a creditable job of making Oliver's unshakable goodness believable. Despite the book's title, however, Oliver has less to do with the story's action than do most protagonists. Other characters act toward him or around him more than he acts on his own; his essentially passive role in the novel makes him less interesting than some of the other, more fully drawn characters.

The villains of Oliver Twist are the novel's most memorable characters. Bill Sikes is stupid, strong, insensitive, and thoroughly evil. With no respect for human life, he insults, threatens, or beats every living thing that gets in his way. Fagin, the clever and devious master of the young thieves, shrewdly manipulates Sikes to his own advantage. Although he apparently retains some shreds of kindness and humanity, Fagin appears primarily as a grotesque, though at times humorous, devil figure. Fagin specializes in corrupting the young. Another evil character, Monks, works behind the scenes for most of the book but exerts an influence.

The truly good characters in the novel are Dickens's least satisfying. Rose Maylie represents Dickens's early version of the ideal Victorian woman. She is sweet, unselfish, giving, loving, submissive, completely good—and unbelievable. Harry Maylie's condescending sacrifice for Rose seems unnecessary at best. Mr. Brownlow fares better; he champions Oliver's cause, leads the fight against Oliver's enemies, and has enough personal foibles to make him believable.

Nancy, a prostitute, combines good and bad traits. She lives with Bill Sikes and has stolen for Fagin since her childhood, but she has many admirable qualities. She becomes Oliver's advocate and defender while Fagin holds him prisoner, and she even betrays her friends to protect him. Dickens ultimately judges Nancy's sins to be an indictment against Fagin and others who shaped her during her youth. Dickens writes in the book's preface that Nancy's character 'involves the best and worst shades of our nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility; but it is a truth.' By the end of the book, Nancy receives earthly punishment but heavenly reward.

Dickens's thematic concern with the nature of good and evil—and the factors that make a person choose one or the other—pervades the novel. Rose Maylie has little temptation to be bad, while Nancy has little opportunity to be good. Oliver is rescued before hunger and desperation force him to compromise his values, and Charley Bates manages to overcome his unfortunate upbringing, although not without great struggle. Others, however, seem doomed from the beginning. Dickens writes that such men as Bill Sikes 'would not give the faintest indication of a better nature. Whether every gentler human feeling is dead within such bosoms, or the proper chord to strike has rusted and is hard to find, I do not pretend to know; but that the fact is as I state it, I am sure.'

Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to identify social problems such as the workhouse system, the ineffective legal establishment, and the suffering caused by poverty. But, as always, Dickens's deepest concern is with individuals. He champions self-sacrifice, benevolence, and charity, and he suggests that personal happiness and social progress can occur only as individuals develop these traits.


Oliver Twist is Dickens's second novel, written when he was still in his middle 20s, and does not display the brilliance of character, thought, form, and language that characterizes his most mature work. Nevertheless, the novel has much to recommend it. Dickens's realistic descriptions of the London criminal underworld are fascinating and effective. He creates lively characters and situations and has a knack for finding just the right word to devastate a character, drive home a point, or create effective irony or humor. His social criticism still generates animated discussions about similar problems existing today, and the moral issues Dickens raises will probably always face us.

Some readers object to Dickens's use of coincidences to propel the plot of Oliver Twist. He depends on the kinds of unlikely connections that many modern writers carefully avoid; Dickens himself toned down his reliance on coincidence as a plot device in his later works. It is important to note that coincidences even more startling than those in Dickens's books occurred regularly in other novels of the time, and hence, the Victorian reading public was accustomed to suspending its disbelief to a certain extent when reading novels. Dickens and other Victorian writers sought artistic balance in their plots, and making everything fit together was a time-honored goal of the novelist. More important, Dickens hoped to show that, although those who live comfortably may try to deny any connection with—and therefore responsibility for—the poor, all people are naturally and inescapably interconnected. In later novels such as Bleak House, Dickens succeeds in expressing this theme without resorting to coincidence as often as he does in Oliver Twist.


Some of Dickens's original readers objected to Oliver Twist's comparatively frank portrayal of thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But what was considered explicit then is quite mild today. Dickens carefully avoids direct quotation of offensive language and offers only the most oblique descriptions of objectionable behavior. The novel was written for a Victorian audience, after all, and as Dickens himself points out in the preface, 'a lesson of the purest good may...be drawn from the vilest evil.'

Dickens's treatment of Jewish characters will be more objectionable to modern readers, although very few Victorians even noticed it. The original text clearly portrays Fagin as a Jew and may even suggest that his ethnic background has formed his character. Indeed, Dickens frequently compares Fagin to the devil, though never explicitly because Fagin is a Jew. Dickens, although remarkably clear-sighted about some forms of injustice, never completely escaped the views of his own culture, which generally viewed Jews as sneaky and dishonest.


1. Is Nancy a morally complex character? What evidence supports your conclusions?

2. Is Oliver really the central character in the book that bears his name?

3. At the end of many Victorian novels, the author rewards and punishes his or her characters. To what extent do the characters of Oliver Twist get what they deserve in the end?

4. Which characters in this novel seem most realistic to you? Do you find that certain types of characters seem more believable than others? Why?

5. Some readers object to Dickens's treatment of Fagin and other Jews in Oliver Twist. Is Dickens prejudiced? Under what conditions should we decide that an individual character represents an author's feelings about an entire group?

6. Dickens is often described as a humorist. What about Oliver Twist makes it funny? You might consider characters, language, and situations.

7. What kinds of social criticism do you find in Oliver Twist? How does Dickens feel about important institutions and ideas of his time? Does he effectively persuade his readers to agree with his point of view?

8. What events transpire before the story actually opens? What effects do these events have on Oliver? How does he find out who his real parents and relatives are?

9. What function does Monks play in the novel? What is his relation to Oliver, and what are his motives?

10. Compare Rose Maylie and Nancy. How are they different? Are they alike in any ways? Why is Rose so good, and Nancy apparently so bad?

11. Why does Dickens include the scene in which Oliver visits Fagin in prison? What does this confrontation contribute to the novel?


1. Oliver Twist describes characters from many different social and economic levels. What effects do class and economic level have on the characters in this novel?

2. Compare Dickens's view of men with his view of women in Oliver Twist. What are the characteristics of his ideal woman? His ideal man? How do the novel's characters fulfill or not fulfill these ideals?

3. Oliver Twist deals with questions of good and evil. How do you think Dickens would define these terms? What evidence from the novel supports your conclusions? How do the novel's characters measure up against Dickens's definitions?

4. How do you think Dickens feels about Nancy? Is she predominantly good or bad? To what extent does Dickens seem to reward or punish her, and for what aspects of her life does he do so?

5. How does coincidence function in Oliver Twist? Do the connections among various characters seem forced? What effects do these coincidences have on the reader?


Oliver Twist has been the basis for several films, the most popular of which is the musical Oliver! (1968). Starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, and Shani Wallis, this version won six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Carol Reed and Best Picture. While many of the film's characters and musical numbers are delightful, its general tone obviously departs from Dickens's. The film's characters, except Bill Sikes and possibly Fagin, are entirely too whitewashed, and the squalor and sordidness of underworld London are softened. Many events and characters are omitted, thus changing, and sentimentalizing, the plot considerably. The film excludes Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Corney, the entire Maylie family, Mr. Grimwig, and Monks.

Oliver! was derived from the classic 1948 British film adaptation entitled Oliver Twist, which was directed by David Lean and starred Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, John Howard Davies, and Kay Walsh. Other film versions include a weak 1933 release and a passable 1982 television movie strengthened by George C. Scott's performance as Fagin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great work!

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...